Fantasies on Parade
Indio Date Festival showcases Middle Eastern motifs
Published: Monday, May 10, 2004
For a period of ten days every February, the Indio fairgrounds in Southern California are transformed into a festive carnival celebrating the bounty that is the date harvest. Date palms were first imported to the Coachella Valley from North Africa in the 1920s. Today the vast groves constitute a lucrative sector of the regional economy, producing a varied crop, from Medjool and Deglet Noor dates, commercially available to most Americans in supermarkets and specialty stores, to the lesser known delicacies such as the Barhi, Dayri, Halawy, Khisab, Thoory and Zahidi varieties.
Over the years the annual date festival has attracted millions to Indio, otherwise a sleepy desert town located 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles. They come to watch the camel races, take in the nightly performances of episodes from the Arabian Nights, be entertained by local belly dancers, or line up for the finale, a Sunday parade complete with marching bands sporting kafiyyas and floats resembling magic carpets. At the heart of the parade, Date Queen Scheherazade and her princesses smile broadly, waving to the multitudes lined up along Arabia Boulevard, while members of the Shriners zigzag behind them in miniaturized vehicles to the delight of the crowd.
The festival and parade are part of a broader living tradition of Orientalism that is integral to American popular culture and is manifested in a variety of ways in Southern California and the western United States. Common notions about the Middle East on this continent can be traced to the popularity of the Arabian Nights fables, made accessible by their translation into English in the mid-19th century. Images and perceptions originating from the Thousand and One Nights were further popularized in the US via expositions and world fairs, beginning with the one held in Chicago in 1893. These fantastic and exotic notions of the Middle East were subsequently picked up by early Hollywood filmmakers. The discovery and unveiling of the tomb of King Tut in 1922 ushered in a comparable wave of Egyptomania which still persists today, together with the fetishization of Arabian motifs, particularly in the realms of architecture, entertainment, marketing and consumerism.